When is a priority not a priority? When it's after the election.
Last July the Senate Intelligence Committee released a much-anticipated report on the prewar intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The study concluded that the intelligence community--led by the CIA--had "overstated" and "mischaracterized" the intelligence on Iraq's (nonexistent) WMDs. The massive report repeatedly detailed instances when the intelligence services botched the job by ignoring contrary evidence, embracing questionable sources and rushing to judgments that just happened to fit the preconceived notions of the Bush Administration. "What the President and the Congress used to send the country to war was information that was...flawed," declared Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the committee. Jay Rockefeller, the committee's senior Democrat, noted that the report outlined "one of the most devastating...intelligence failures in the history of the nation."
But the committee's report did not cover a crucial area: how the Bush Administration used--or abused--the prewar intelligence to build support for the Iraq invasion. Roberts claimed his committee was hot on that trail: "It is one of my top priorities," he said. The problem, he explained, was that there was not enough time before the November election to complete the assignment. Rockefeller took issue with that and complained that the "central issue of how intelligence was...exaggerated by Bush Administration officials" was being relegated into a "Phase II" investigation that would not begin until after the election. A Democratic committee staffer said that such an inquiry could easily be completed within months.
Still, Roberts succeeded in his transparent effort to kick that inconvenient can down the road. (Imagine the headache for the Bush campaign if news stories appeared before the election reporting that the committee had found Bush had stretched an already stretched truth.) Now--with Bush re-elected--Roberts no longer considers Phase II a priority. In mid-March, Roberts declared further investigation pointless. He noted that if his committee asked Bush officials whether they had overstated or mischaracterized prewar intelligence, they'd simply claim their statements had been based on "bum intelligence." Roberts remarked, "To go though that exercise, it seems to me, in a postelection environment--we didn't see how we could do that and achieve any possible progress. I think everybody pretty well gets it." Gets what, precisely? The evidence is strong that Bush and his aides overstated the overstated intelligence. One example: Bush claimed that Iraq possessed stockpiles of biological weapons, yet the CIA reported only that Saddam had an active biological weapons R&D program. (It turns out he had neither stockpiles nor an active program.) The question is, How and why did Bush and his lieutenants come to exaggerate exaggerations? And just because the answer is obvious doesn't mean an investigation is unwarranted.
While Roberts has dismissed the need for Phase II, Rockefeller has been trying to push the investigation forward. But the committee has not yet bothered to interview any Administration officials about the use of prewar intelligence. The committee also appears to be stymied by obstacles it encountered last year while pursuing a matter to be included in the Phase II inquiry: the actions of the Office of Special Plans. The OSP was a neocon-linked, maverick intelligence shop in the Pentagon set up to search for intelligence (good or bad) to support the case for war. Phase II was supposed to determine whether the OSP had operated appropriately. But when committee staff were probing the OSP last year, people connected to it began hiring lawyers and clamming up, and the committee had a hard time prying documents from the Pentagon. "We received documents up to a point," comments a Rockefeller aide. "Then it stopped. The issue for us became whether to wrap up the investigation on the basis of what we got, or to try to get more information." Roberts, however, has signaled he's no longer interested in the OSP inquiry. "We sort of came to a crossroads, and that is basically on the back burner," he said recently. So stonewalling works.
It would not tax the committee to compare the prewar assertions of Bush officials with the intelligence it had been provided. Apparently the commission Bush appointed last year (under pressure) to examine WMD intelligence has not been performing this task. The preliminary signs are that this commission, due to issue a report soon, will focus on inadequacies of intelligence related to present and potential WMD threats, such as Iran and North Korea.
When the intelligence committee released its report last summer, I asked Roberts if the public and relatives of US troops killed in Iraq deserved to know "whether this Administration handled intelligence matters adequately and made statements that were justified." He replied, "I have made my commitment, and it will be done." His promise was--oh-so shocking!--nothing but a maneuver to protect Bush's backside. Rockefeller and other Democrats are insisting Phase II be carried out. But Bush may benefit from the attempted cover-up. A President doesn't have to worry about troubling answers if no one asks the questions.